A Puzzle Only You Can Solve

My wife loves puzzles, which explains a lot now that I think about it. This year for her birthday, I thought it would be fun to create a puzzle only she could solve. I enlisted the help of our son, Griffin, who is six years old. We created a series of puzzles and riddles that only she could answer that would all culminate in her learning where she was going for her birthday dinner.


When she woke up, the first thing she got was a hot cup of coffee and this envelope.


Inside the envelope was a crossword I had made. It asked her questions that referenced significant things in our past, inside jokes or pop culture references I was sure she’d get.


I had assumed that this would take her sometime to fill out and expected her to give me a call at some point while I was at work saying she had completed it. However, by the time I had gotten out of the shower, she was pretty much done.

She had gotten all but two of them correct and after only a little prompting she remembered the other ones. The tricky part here was that the two words she came up with that ended up being wrong, were actually the same length as the correct words. Trying to anticipate what she might guess, was something I should have thought of before I picked these questions.



I had instructed our son to give her another envelope when she said she was done. So, she was a little surprised when he walked up and handed her a blank envelope and said something along the lines of, “this is for you.”

She opened it up and found the first of a series of riddles. Riddles that my son had come up with pretty much all on his own. These riddles would direct her to different places in the house, where she would find her next clue. There were four riddles in total.


This one lead her down our stairs, into the playroom and to some toy boxes on a shelf, which my son said he thought looked like colored windows.

Searching through the boxes, she found her next envelope.


Now he’s directed her back up the steps “lumps,” through a door “rectangle,” and into our bathroom where he informed me that our toilet looked like a white alligator.

Looking behind the toilet she found her next clue.


The third riddle sent her up into what we call the ‘secret hideout’ above our kitchen. It’s basically a spare room that you can only access from a narrow ladder set into the wall (this house is crazy). There, under the bucket my son uses to ferry toys up and down the ladder,  she found the third envelope.

This led her to the last riddle he had come up with.


The final riddle he came up with sent her not too far from the base of the ladder. Underneath a floor mat, that reminded my son of a pressure plate in Minecraft, was her prize.


I had gotten her a copy of Marvel Lego. She’s always loved the Lego games and we’d been talking about playing since I found out it was announced.


But this was just part of her birthday present.


Inside the game box was another riddle of sorts. It asked her to look over all that she had done and see if she could solve the final riddle…

Where are you going to dinner tonight?


Now, under closer examination she realized that all of the riddle cards had squares cut out of them. Flipping the riddles over, she saw a series of numbers.


She first placed the back or the riddle card over the front of another riddle card, to see if they lined up (which I made a point to make sure they didn’t). Once that didn’t work, she moved onto the crossword she had completed.

She tried the cards in a couple different ways, but made short work of figuring out that it was in fact a key to the crossword puzzle.


With this complete, she was nearly there. All she had to do was to write down the letters based off of the numbers I had written under them.

In hindsight, I could have left the squares blank and just let her figure out what the phrase actually was, but I was concerned she would get overly frustrated at this part. I’ve learned in game development it’s usually best to side on making it too easy rather than too hard.


“We’re going to the Space Needle!” she exclaimed without having to completely solve the word puzzle.

“Yep,” I confirmed.


We had dinner that night at the top of the Space Needle with her parents who showed up to surprise her.

So in fact, it was a day of surprises.


All around it was a blast coming up with the puzzles. She really enjoyed them, especially when she learned that our son had come up with the riddles on his own. The whole experience took her about an hour or so, much shorter than I had expected, but she had fun and that’s what matters.

There are a handful of things I would have liked to do, if I had more time.

  • Continue the puzzle / treasure hunt at the Seattle Center. I had worked out a plan that involved me going to the Seattle Center beforehand and scouting out four places that when used as points of an X would mark the Space Needle in the center. I’d then hand her a series of cryptically phrased descriptions of places around the Seattle Center that she’d have to walk around and figure out. Once she did that, she’d connect the dots on a map of the area and see that the Space Needle would be where we were going. However, time, weather, work and kids made this impossible.
  • We had recently discovered Letterboxing from some friends of ours. My other plan was while I was at work for her to go to a nearby park where I had set one up a new Letterbox, just for her to find. Inside the Letterbox would be a series of instructions like, “Be ready at 6,” “Take the kids to the sitter,” and “Dress for a nice dinner.” In my mind I had these all scrambled and she’d have to use a letter substitution based off of her birthday. Getting this altogether proved to be crazy talk.
  • My wife likes people, even strangers. I still don’t fully understand this phenomena, but I love her for it none the less. My wildest, no time to even consider getting done, idea was to involve a handful of the local businesses. Each one would be a part of her birthday present and also contain a clue/riddle to the next present. She’d get a beer at the local brewery, then be lead to the family run chocolate company near our house, then go into Seattle to throw some pizza pies for lunch and finally take some dogs for a walk at the local dog shelter. All awesome ideas, that of course I never got to. I ended up not doing this for a couple reasons, the main one being, I’d want to be with her while she was doing all this. Perhaps for another time.

If you think that your significant other, child, parent or friend might enjoy something like this, you should TOTALLY do it. It was easy to set up and will give them memories that will last forever. Feel free to use everything I’ve done here for yourself. Have fun with it.


Looking over this whole thing as a game designer the main issue I saw come up was the speed she went through the puzzles. She went through them a lot faster than I had expected. We experience this same issue all the time in regular game development. You expect it to take the player an hour to get through the content and it takes them 10 minutes. It’s just the nature of things.

The solution here, just like in video game development is to add more content, rather than more difficulty to the content. Sure there were a couple places I could have increased the difficulty (not having the numbers on the back of the riddle cards comes to mind), but at some point that extra time is spent in frustration, not in fun.



One thought on “A Puzzle Only You Can Solve

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